Weather team acclimates to mission in southern Baghdad

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein
  • U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs
Illuminated by the late night moonlight, an Air Force weather forecaster ascended the narrow, rickety staircase leading up to the helipad's plywood control tower at Forward Operating Base Kalsu.

Millions of tiny stars spread across the sky above the pitch-black forward operating base, with generators providing a low, constant hum as Tech. Sgt. Andrea Patterson scanned the horizon, searching for the hazy, orange lights of a nearby Iraqi city.

"When I can't see the city, then I know visibility is bad and the helicopters shouldn't fly," she said, turning to check the horizon in the opposite direction, a task she does hourly while on duty.

This particular night was clear, but as Sergeant Patterson has learned in the few months she's been deployed to Forward Operating Base Kalsu, "that can change rapidly. Once the wind picks up, it can blow up all that sand and dust and create a dangerous flying environment," she said.

Soon after returning to her desk in the aviation tactical operations center, two Army helicopter pilots came in to get their weather brief before heading off on a mission. Sergeant Patterson gave them an update, letting them know what to expect once they got airborne. In return, the pilots gave her their weather observations from flying into this location, about 25 miles south of Baghdad. She took careful notes to include in her weather update.

"The human factor of this job is just as important as the information we get from our equipment," she said. "We have to use each other to get the job done."

Sergeant Patterson is one of three Air Force weathermen deployed in support of the 3rd Infantry Division to this forward operating base, located in an area often referred to as "the Triangle of Death." The three of them split the 24-hour work day to ensure aviation missions around the region have constant and consistent weather updates.

It's a job few outside the aviation field know about, or seem to understand, said Sergeant Patterson.

"They had a comedian come in for a morale show, and he came on stage and immediately started making jokes about combat weather," she said. "As in, why do you need weather when it's always sunny over here? He went on and on about it, and everyone else was looking over at me. It was awkward, because it was like, hello, I'm over here and there's more to it than predicting sunny skies."

If only it were that simple, said Tech. Sgt. Brian Landrum, a combat weather forecaster and NCO in charge of the team.

"The wind storms, sand and visibility, as well as the temperature, are all things we have to constantly monitor since we are responsible for providing the information for the helicopters in theater, as well as the unmanned aerial vehicles and security balloons," he said.

Keeping an eye on the wind is actually a big part of the day, he said.

"With the heat, it's very easy for the wind's strength to change suddenly," he said. "We keep our eye on it constantly, to let the security forces know when they need to rope in their balloon, which is the size of a small blimp. Even the slightest change in knots can send that thing floating off into the horizon."

The weather team mostly uses computer-based equipment to do their job, to include the Internet information and satellite images from other weather squadrons around the world.

Sometimes, though, circumstances at the forward operating base, which occasionally comes under mortar attack, create what Sergeant Patterson called "data sparse" situations.

"It can be like Murphy's Law out here sometimes," she said. "The communication links will drop, the telephone system will back up. One of our connection wires was cut during recent construction. Sometimes, we have to walk across the forward operating base during the nightly black-out to get to the unmanned aerial vehicle guys for their weather brief. There are moments when we have nothing but our human observations to go on, so it is critical to know your job out here."

All three Airmen have been stationed with Army units for the bulk of their career.

Sergeants Patterson and Landrum hail from 7th Weather Squadron flights in Germany (Wiesbaden and Katterbach, respectively) while Staff Sgt. Anthony Smith is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

In order to qualify for Army support, they had to attend specialized training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

"The training teaches Airmen about the Army way of life; convoy duty, putting up tents, medical care that goes beyond self-aid, buddy care," Sergeant Landrum said. "Since we go where the Army goes, it makes sense for us to receive the same type of preparation and training they do."

Sergeant Patterson has used her Army training in more than one location. During one of her three deployments to Iraq in recent years, she spent three months at a "bare bones" location, setting up weather operations in an area that left much to be desired. She and the Soldiers lived off bottled water and meals-ready-to-eat, using baby wipes to wash, as supplies and equipment were slow in coming.

"All things considered, I actually enjoyed it," she said. "I was out to set up bare base operations, and I was in charge as an E-5. You don't get that opportunity at an air base."

She said it was during her deployment to Baghdad in August 2003 when she realized the impact her job had on others.

"I was there when the United Nations compound was hit by a truck bomb," she said. "We were just a few streets away and the windows shook when it went off. The quick reaction force guys came rushing in for a weather update and then they were off. Just a few days before, we had just set up our television set and so CNN was on and we watched as everything was happening, as the (helicopters) flew in, picking up casualties. Those were the pilots I had just briefed."

She said she was struck by the image of injured people being flown to safety.

"I felt then that I was a part of that," she said, "and you don't get that feeling working regular Air Force (weather) assignments. You get more leadership opportunities here. And we work more directly with the customers, and that makes it exciting."

She said living and working amongst Soldiers has actually given her more appreciation for the Air Force and the capabilities it brings to the fight.

"Whenever I sit amongst the Soldiers, and they see my Air Force name tags, they have questions," she said. "They want to know what it is like to be an Airman. It's like being an ambassador and I enjoy that. If anything, it's established more pride in me for my service."